Monday, September 25, 2017

Virgin Planet by Poul Anderson

"You know," answered Davis, "this is the kind of thing I used to daydream about in my teens.  A brand new world, like Earth but more beautiful, and I the only man among a million women.  Well...I've found it now and I want out!"
So many SF novels have covers that I really like produced by artists whom isfdb is unable to identify.  There's the cover of the 1970 Lancer edition of Damon Knight's World Without Children and The Earth Quarter, the cover of Belmont's 1963 Novelets of Science Fiction, Ace's 1975 edition of Leigh Brackett's The Sword of Rhiannon, and Dell's 1971 collection of A. E. van Vogt stories, More than Superhuman. Well, we can add Paperback Library's 1970 printing of Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet to the list.  The use of color and metaphor (the women in the book are not giants) gives the cover a very poster-like, "graphic design," feel which I like and which distinguishes it from the many more literal and realistic covers produced for Virgin Planet over the years, while not neglecting the obvious erotic overtones of a book about being the only man on a planet full of women.

Virgin Planet first appeared in book form in 1959, an expansion of a 1957 novella published in the very first issue of Venture with attractive illustrations by Emsh, and has been reprinted frequently.  I just sang the praises of one of Anderson's Dominic Flandry stories; let's see if Virgin Planet provides me a chance to issue further encomiums to the man who built a houseboat with Jack Vance and Frank Herbert.

The Delta Capitas Lupi system of two stars and five planets and many moons has been cut off from the human space federation (the "Union") for as long as anybody can remember by a "trepidation vortex," the kind of thing in other SF you might call a warp storm.  The vortex has largely shifted out of the way, and playboy Davis Bertram (is this a Wodehouse reference?), girl-chasing son of a wealthy businessman, has purchased a one-man space ship with the idea of being the first to explore the system and win some prestige.  When he lands on the Earth-like third moon of the subordinate star's larger planet he discovers it is inhabited by the cloned descendants of a lost all-women colonization vessel that crash landed on the moon 300 years ago; these women have only preindustrial technology and are illiterate and have only dim legends about their ancestors' origins and ordinary human sexual life!

Anderson's narrative begins in medias res, with Corporal Barbara Whitley of the flightless-bird-riding cavalrywomen of Freetoon, one of the competing settlements of clones on planet Atlantis, as they call it. She captures Davis (in the Union, family name comes before personal name) with a lasso and drags him to imprisonment in Freetoon.  After a few flashback chapters which give us insight into Bertram's character, the novel's plot showcases the radical effect Davis's arrival has on Atlantean society.

Women who have been resorting to celibacy or lesbianism all their lives jealously compete for the attention of Davis, while the rulers of the towns see him and his spaceship as the key to absolute hegemony, and war erupts over him.  Barbara Whitley and her genetically identical comrade Valeria free Davis and they escape into the wilderness with him as a coalition army from other towns is storming Freetoon.  Davis insists on bringing along Elinor Dyckman, a voluptuous brunette who makes her way in the world via flattery and sex appeal and for whom the athletic and belligerent red-headed Whitleys have contempt.

The novel is quite readable and entertaining.  Anderson devotes considerable time and energy to setting the scene, describing in detail the sky of Atlantis, for example, with its many heavenly bodies that include the huge planet about which Atlantis orbits, a gas giant which looms 14 times the size of Luna as seen from Earth and  whose amber light alters colors on the Atlantean surface, where the numerous moons often paint a complex multiplicity of shadows.  We learn all about Atlantean society.  The 300-year old ship which brought the very first iteration of Whitley and Dyckman and all the few hundred women who are the prototypes of the hundreds of thousands of people now living on Atlantis is now the base of a sort of papacy.  Women from all the many towns go to Ship City as pilgrims, to be impregnated by the mysterious "Doctors" via a parthogenetic process which splits one of their ovum so they can give birth to a baby genetically identical to themselves.  The Doctors stay out of the endless political disputes between the warlike towns but demand regular tribute and live relatively luxurious lives.

Though there are no explicit sex scenes, Anderson plays up sex angle--one of the first things Davis witnesses in captivity is Barbara Whitley stripping and bathing in a trough, and on their harrowing journey over the mountains and through the woods to a different region of Atlantis, Davis repeatedly gets within seconds of getting into the quite willing Elinor Dyckman's pants, only to be interrupted each time by a jealous Whitley or a monster attack.  Anderson also talks about genetics and sex differences that maybe we aren't supposed to talk about nowadays?  For example, how women's muscles are weaker than men's, which results in Atlantean close combat yielding relatively few fatalities rates-- the women are not strong enough to easily penetrate each other's armor with their axes and spears.  Because an individual's personality, inclinations and abilities are determined by her genetic identity, each class of clones becomes a caste and fits the same niche in each town near Davis's landing spot--every settlement is ruled by mannish Udalls, and wherever you go all the aggressive Whitleys are members of the warrior class while the selfish Dyckmans (a Dickensian joke name?) are lovers and advisers to Udalls and mercilessly manipulate everybody at court.    

In the region of Atlantis beyond that mountain range the party of Freetoon refugees encounters a town in which all the women are the same type of clone, Burkes.  The Burkes have a republican society with a council and social equality, everybody taking turns at menial tasks, a contrast to the  the Udall monarchy and rigid castes--among them a class of helots--found at Freetoon and neighboring settlements.  The Burkes take Davis captive, hoping to breed with him and thus throw off their reliance on the Doctors and generate a more diverse, vital and physically strong nation which will be able to take over the entire planet.  Our heroes escape to an island where resides a settlement inhabited by a small variety of different genotypes, all creative and artistic people, a sort of decadent artists' commune.  These sensitive types are also eager to mate with Davis, for less utilitarian reasons, but the jealous Whitleys yet again interfere.  Then a representative of the Doctors shows up.  Uninterested in having their exalted position disrupted, the Doctors want Davis killed at once, hiding their fears behind the allegation that he is no man, but an alien monster.

The last third or so of the 150-page novel covers Davis's cobbling together of a military alliance of women disaffected from the Doctors and their conquest of Ship City. Anderson keeps this realistic rather than John-Carteresque--like you would expect of an actual political leader, especially in a society like the galactic Union which has abandoned war, Davis is far in the rear with the generals, watching the assault and not even issuing orders but letting an old native, a veteran ship captain, command the operation, until his special expertise is required when it is discovered that the Doctors have his ion blast pistol.  In the end Davis and Barbara and Valeria are able to neutralize the Doctors and make peace among the Atlanteans.  Davis leaves the planet with his lady love (one of the Whitleys, though Anderson keeps it a mystery which) to open up Atlantis to the Union--soon the women of Atlantis will all know the joys of heterosexual sex and sexual reproduction!

After the novel proper Anderson provides a seven-page explanation of all the science in the story, telling us he is emulating Hal Clement's well-respected and very science-based Mission of Gravity.  

A quite good example of the traditional SF story--an adventure with violence and danger that portrays a paradigm shift, expresses skepticism of religion and slings a lot of science--in this case astronomy, biology, sociology and political science--at you in an entertaining and thought-provoking way.  Anderson also succeeds in presenting characters who all have motivations, personalities and relationships that make sense, and who evolve as the novel proceeds.  Thumbs up for Virgin Planet.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes

Paul Danton found his brain whirling, lost in the complexity of it.  He felt curiously humble.  This duplicate, who differed from him only because a Security agent had thought him more devious than he really was, reasoned in a way that was utterly alien to him.
This recent weekend the Toyota Corolla conveyed the wife and me to Dayton, Ohio, where we took in the Alphonse Mucha exhibit at the Art Institute (strongly recommended) and ate dishes with "shish" in their names and drank coffee and tea at Olive Mediterranean Grill (MPorcius Travel Guide also recommends this establishment.)  On our way out of town we stopped at the One Dollar Book Swap, a huge warehouse next to the highway with masses of used books for sale for a dollar each.  It seems like it is some kind of charity or something, staffed by volunteers and only open on the weekends.  I pored over the SF shelves, which were not alphabetized and mostly had books too recent to interest me, but I did pick up two volumes, a 1990 edition of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s  The Moon is Hell! and a legitimately old book, the 1959 Avalon hardcover printing of James Blish and Robert Lowndes' The Duplicated Man.  Mine is a bedraggled copy formerly in the collection of the Lake Bluff, Illinois, Public Library and so covered in red "DISCARDED" stamps and hand-scrawled catalog numbers, but I'm a reader of books rather than a collector, and I think these evidences of former ownership add character to the volume, and I am certainly glad to have it for one dollar.

The Duplicated Man first appeared in a 1953 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction with an amusing declaration on its cover that assured potential readers that the novel was "complete" and "not an abridged 'magazine version.'"  For this magazine publication of the novel Lowndes used the pseudonym Michael Sherman--the Avalon hardcover of The Duplicated Man is actually dedicated "to the memory of Marcus Lyons, Michael Sherman, and John MacDougal," pen names employed by Blish and Lowndes, a little SF in-joke.  If you are not lucky enough to have secured your own copy of this novel for a dollar, the internet archive has you covered--check out the original 1953 magazine text, complete with disturbing Paul Orban illos, here.

The Duplicated Man is about four political hierarchies and their relationships with each other, each of them to varying extents revolutionary and tyrannical, three of them riven by no-holds-barred factional infighting.  The four political groups--the parliamentary rulers of Earth, the dictatorial cabal of Venus, an Earth revolutionary party which sympathizes with Venus and a revolutionary party on Venus which sympathizes with Earth, have been in a tense stalemate for many years, but political and psychological pressure has been building over that time, and the novel describes the course of events as things boil over into crisis and everybody takes extreme measures to win power or just survive.

I guess we should see The Duplicated Man as a meditation on the world politics of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, which were characterized by communist and fascist revolutionaries and mass war and saw, in response to economic and military crisis, a major increase in state power in liberal societies like the United States and Great Britain; the book also expresses Blish and Lowndes' negative view of technological change and their bizarre wish fulfillment fantasy of how geniuses might manipulate everybody to bring peace to the world.

The Duplicated Man is not structured in the way most of the novels I read are structured; rather than following a single sympathetic or interesting character or group of characters from start to finish, there are twenty or twenty-five characters who drop in and out of the narrative; many of them only appear in the first or second half of the book, none of them is very sympathetic, and only one is actually interesting.  Throughout the 222-page novel people make and break alliances, switch sides or reveal they were moles the whole time, double cross and stab each other in the back.  There is plenty of dialogue that consists of planning how to trick somebody or description of how somebody got tricked, and speculations of how somebody else is going to respond to events based on his or her psychological profile or strategic vision. Much of this stuff is neither easy to follow nor very entertaining.

The Background:  A century before , back in 1971 (the year of my birth!), the "Peace Squadron" bombed "the ice-cap," causing mass flooding worldwide and transforming the geographic and political landscape.  Countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and a world government, the Security Council, took over. Each of the newly designated nations of Earth was given a seat on the Council.  The first thirty pages of The Duplicated Man follow a publicly-broadcast parliamentary debate (the Security Council prides itself on its transparency) lead by Joachim Burgd, representative of Antarctica, about the so-called Earth-Government-in-Exile on Venus; this debate also touches upon the Pro-Earth Party, an underground organization on Earth itself.

You see, not everybody is happy with the Security Council's rule.  When they first took over a bunch of people, including one of Earth's greatest scientists, Geoffrey Thomas, fled to inhospitable Venus where they established subterranean cities.  From Venus these people periodically launch missiles (with conventional warheads) at the Earth, about a dozen a year, indiscriminately blowing people and property to bits.  The Security Council is unable to counterattack because that genius Thomas has surrounded Venus with an energy screen through which no nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels can pass, and the Venus settlements are too small, well-concealed and widely dispersed to target with conventional weapons--also, the Security Council's charter explicitly forbids warmaking!  This bombardment has been going on for like one hundred years (!) and the people of Earth are starting to crack under the strain!

The Pro-Earth Party is one of those revolutionary groups in which everybody has a code name and is in a three-man cell, the members of which signal each other in public via signs and countersigns like how they light their cigarettes.  These jokers hope to take over the Earth and end the bombardment by negotiating with Venus, but the Party's bloodthirsty leaders can't agree on methods and are always splitting into factions and purging each other, leaving the low-ranking members at risk of being on the wrong side of a purge at any moment. One such low-ranking member is the nominal protagonist of the novel, Paul Danton (his name, presumably, is significant.)

After introducing us to Danton and the Earth situation, Blish and Lowndes switch the camera to Venus, where we meet Thomas himself, leader of the exiles and a man of over 500 pounds and over 140 years--he needs the help of assistants just to walk!  He's having a meeting with the Directorate, usually called "the cabal," all of the members of which want to depose him and take his place and somehow squeeze the secret of immortality out of him.  On Venus we are also introduced to an underground group (one of the authors'' little jokes is that on Venus the "underground" organization meets on the surface) called the Earth Party which hopes to put Venus under Earth control--they too are having a meeting.

The Plot:  Danton has been investigating rumors of a Duplication Machine, a device which can create duplicates of human beings.  At a meeting of a division of the Pro-Earth Party he reports that the fabulous contraption is no myth--he has located it and seen it with his own eyes--and the leaders of the Party announce plans to seize the amazing machine and use it to support a direct military attack on the Earth government. Their idea is to kidnap members of the Security Council and duplicate them, which will sow confusion in the government hierarchy.  Immediately after this announcement, party members who are in fact government infiltrators shut down the meeting, capturing everybody present, including Danton.

Danton, it turns out, looks just like one of the members of the Venus cabal (this kind of thing happens in fiction all the time, like to our pal Fred, and even happens sometimes in real life!) and the Security Council enlists him for a mission to Venus. Imitating the Pro-Earth Party's aborted plan, the Security Council will use the machine to duplicate Danton five times and send all six of them to Venus, where they will disrupt the Venus government's operations.

At the same time, Thomas and the Venus cabal discover that their screen is down so they launch a preemptive invasion of Earth, desperate to conquer our big blue marble before the Earthers realize how vulnerable Venus now is.  The Venusians have sixteen warships, but only five take off because one of the cabal (pursuing his own agenda) joins the Earth Party and they sabotage the launch.  The Danton mission to Venus is also hamstrung: the Venusian preliminary bombardment (2000 missiles!) and assassins from the Pro-Earth Party waylay some of the duplicates on Earth, while the original Danton just stays on Earth because he has to distract a female member of the Security Council who has fallen in love with him!  Only two Danton duplicates and a Security Council secret agent make it to Venus.

One of the recurring themes of The Duplicated Man is how plans always fail--nothing anybody does seems to work as they had hoped--and another, related theme, is limited intelligence.  Because of the thick cloud cover of Venus, people on Earth have no idea what is going on on Venus (the Earthers don't know Thomas is immortal, for example, and assume he has been dead for thirty or more years), and people on Venus have little greater knowledge of conditions on Earth.  The Security Council activates the Duplication Machine without knowing how it really works, and, in the event, it doesn't actually duplicate Danton very well.  The "new" Dantons have all of the original Danton's memories, but their looks and personalities are all skewed and influenced by members of the Security Council apparatus.  One Danton dupe, thanks to the subconscious input of the beautiful woman on the Council who is in love with Danton, has powerful sex appeal, for example.  The passage used as an epigraph to this blog post refers to another dupe, one influenced by the aforementioned secret agent,

In the end of the book we find that everything that has happened has been orchestrated by Geoffrey Thomas and Joachim Burgd and that half the things everybody else, including us readers, believed is not true (e. g., there has never been an energy screen around Venus!)  Venus is now under the control of the one man on Venus devoted to peace and the Earth is under the thumb of the Security Council (but held in check by the Pro-Earth Party) so freedom and peace now reign throughout the solar system.  This ending is absolutely incredible* and very frustrating, in part because it undermines all the interesting themes of limited intelligence and failed plans we've been seeing for 210 pages--Thomas and Burgd are like omniscient and omnipotent gods who knew all and successfully manipulated billions of people to accomplish their goal.
* [in-kred-uh-buh l] adjective, 1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed. 2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.

The Duplicated Man is a pretty mixed bag.  The actual science fiction elements of the book are good--the passages on the form of immortality experienced by Thomas, the Duplication machine, the Earth agents' exploration of the Venusian surface, and the space war, are all interesting and evocative.  Blish and Lowndes also do a lot of psychology and sociology stuff I appreciated, even if I don't buy their theories--the stress endured by Earthlings who could be killed at any moment by a falling bomb and the claustrophobia of Venusians who live their entire lives underground; the lust for vengeance of some Venusians who feel they were unjustly exiled to that barren desert planet and the yearnings of other Venusians to live on Earth, even though they don't know a thing about life there; the psychology of people like Danton immersed in a merciless and totalitarian revolutionary organization.  No doubt feminists will not appreciate the psychological profiles the authors cook up for the women characters--like the Venusian femme fatale who uses sex to dominate men but is looking for a man to dominate her and the Earth politician at the top of the heap who falls in love with a low-ranking terrorist she just met and abandons her career for him--and I have to admit I never really understood why the Dantons were willing to undertake the dangerous mission to destabilize Venus--didn't Danton like Venus?

The plot and characters are flat, like watching a bunch of lifeless cardboard counters move around a gameboard until you lose track of which is which.  And Blish and Lowndes' philosophy is lame.  Instead of responding to the nightmare world created by the Bolsheviks and Nazis by considering that just maybe governments have too much power, they give us a childish fantasy of governments with even more power than Hitler and Stalin had but headed by selfless geniuses who can kill millions of people in just the right way to create peace.  It's bad enough to find yet another SF story in which we are supposed to welcome elites manipulating us (an idea the story undermines by portraying most of its characters as psychopaths--Thomas even tortures a guy!) but the authors also put into Burgd's mouth some pretty absurd luddism:
"Do you actually believe that we would need to run the Earth at its present peak of technology, if our only concern were to keep the people well-clothed, housed, fed, healthy and so on?  Nonsense!  We passed that peak around 1910.  Medicine, agriculture, education--none of them require a technology as advanced and as energy-expensive as the one we maintain."
1910?  Is that a typo? The magazine version and my hardcover copy both have "1910," so apparently not.  Did Blish and Lowndes really think that people's lives had not been improved by technological advances in medicine, agriculture and education between 1910 and 1950, and wouldn't benefit from further advances in the future?  Dumb!

Alright, time to sum up.  I've got a lot of complaints about The Duplicated Man as a piece of literature and entertainment, and I don't find its ideology congenial.  On the other hand, it feels ambitious, it addresses interesting issues in a way that (to me, at least) is strange, and it was never boring or painful--in fact, at times it was surprising, and I think surprise in fiction has value, even if the surprise is how crazy or foolish the author's opinions turn out to be.  One reason I read speculative fiction is because it exposes you to ideas and people that are outside the mainstream--A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry Malzberg, and R. A. Lafferty, to name a few, often write in ways or express ideas that ordinary people do not, and that is one reason I like them, even if I disagree with particular ideas or find particular writing techniques unsuccessful.  I've never read and have no interest in reading Stephen King, but I found the recent controversy about an underage sex scene in one of King's 1980s books a little bewildering--shouldn't we expect to find material that is challenging, offensive, disgusting, bizarre, etc., in horror novels and speculative fiction in general? Don't people read speculative fiction and horror specifically because they are looking for such material?  I'm not on board with a lot of what Blish and Lowndes do in The Demolished Man, but being exposed to it was worthwhile.

It's a borderline case, but I'm giving The Duplicated Man an "acceptable" rating.  I don't feel like reading it was a waste of my time...but don't expect to see me reading any more Blish soon.

**********

On the back cover of my copy of The Duplicated Man is an ad promoting Avalon's SF line, "The Best in Science Fiction."  I have read five of the listed titles, including the two Vances, which I read before this blog sprang fully formed from my febrile noggin, as well as The Space Egg, Across Time, and Hidden World, all of which have suffered this blog's attentions.  I own a paperback of Virgin Planet; maybe it's time I read it?
       

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Valley of Creation by Edmond Hamilton

"It is true, outlander.  You now inhabit the body of the wolf, Asha."
The strong wild thought of the stallion interrupted.  "The power of the ancients!  The punishment of those who transgress the brotherhood!"
In our last installment we talked about Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon.  At the risk of becoming the Hamilton-Brackett Book Blog (which doesn't sound like a bad fate, actually) today we are talking about The Valley of Creation, a novel by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton. The Valley of Creation first appeared in Startling Stories in 1948, but the edition I read, a 1964 paperback from Lancer, prints a revised text, copyrighted 1954.  The indispensable isfdb warns us that that "1954" is a typo for "1964," and reminds us that in a 1976 interview Hamilton admitted that three chapters of this novel were written by Brackett!

(Check out the issue of Startling at the internet archive--L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Vance and Henry Kuttner also contribute stories, and don't miss the Virgil Finlay illustrations or Marion Zimmer's long letter in which she assesses Finlay, Kuttner, and a host of other SF figures, and presents "Ode to Startling," her poem honoring the magazine!)

The cover illustrates the reprint of the
1937 Kuttner story
The protagonist of The Valley of Creation, Ohio-born Eric Nelson, served in the U. S. Army in the Korean War and became addicted to the dangerous life of a fighting man!  (And you thought being addicted to KitKats was unhealthy!)  So for ten years he has been a mercenary, fighting for petty warlords against the communists in the mountainous regions where China, Tibet and Burma meet, his comrades including a patriotic anti-communist Chinese man but mostly American adventurers like himself and European criminals unable or unwilling to get conventional jobs.  In the first third of The Valley of Creation Nelson and his four mates are hired by Shan Kar, a weird guy of unusual ethnicity from an obscure, hard-to-reach valley.  Before they reach the valley a beautiful woman of the same mysterious race as Shan Kar, named Nsharra, tries to seduce Nelson, and, while he is distracted by her feminine charms, she sics her wolf on him!

Nelson survives this assassination attempt and he and the four other mercs, guided by Shan Kar, make it to the valley of L'Lan, where they learn the whole crazy situation they have gotten themselves involved in.  In L'Lan, wolves, eagles, horses and tigers are as intelligent as humans!  Shan Kar is the leader of a human faction that thinks humans should have exclusive governmental responsibility over the valley, while Princess Nsharra and her father are leaders of the establishment, called the Brotherhood, which includes most humans and all the animals--they think there should be legal equality between human and animal, as there has been for time immemorial. Very much in the minority, Shan Kar's Humanites will need outside help to win the civil war they are starting against Nsharra's Brotherhood.  In the ancient past the people of L'Lan were masters of super science, but while they still live in the elaborate cities of bubble-domes and high towers built by their ancestors, the current inhabitants of the valley have lost the ability to produce mechanical devices and so fight with swords and bows--in such a setting the mercenaries' grenades and automatic weapons may be decisive.

At the novel's halfway point Nelson gets captured while on a botched commando raid against the Brotherhood's main city.  As anybody who read the back of the book was expecting, the Brotherhood punishes Nelson by blowing the dust off an ancient wonder of super science--a mind switching machine!--and transferring Nelson's mind into the body of a wolf! (The wolf is installed in Nelson's own form, but for some reason, instead of exploring the joys life offers those with thumbs, he just sleeps.  Another loose end is the question of why being put in a wolf's body is considered a punishment if everybody in the Brotherhood is considered equal.  I'm afraid Hamilton didn't think all of this stuff through.)

The scenes in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf are by far the best part of the novel, as the author compellingly describes the emotions of a man so transformed, rendered inhuman but also imbued with new abilities and new perceptions.  In that 1976 interview, which has been mentioned before on this blog, first by commenter marzaat, and which I strongly recommend to classic SF fans, Hamilton says that some consider the chapters of The Valley of Creation Brackett wrote the high point of the book, strongly suggesting that she wrote these very wolf's-eye-view passages.

People in these Hamilton/Brackett stories often switch sides, and as we've been expecting, Nelson turns against the Humanites and his fellow mercenaries (as does the Chinese merc, who gets killed seconds later by one of the Eurotrash mercs.)  Back in his human body Nelson helps lead the fight against the Humanites, but his former comrades-in-arms outmaneuver him and take the Brotherhood's city.  Nelson and Nsharra go into a cavern in which is embedded a crashed alien space ship and via an ancient recording learn the amazing truth about the valley of L'Lan and about the human race!

Long ago, aliens who had destroyed their own world with their technology were searching for a new home when they crashed on Earth.  Unable to breathe our atmosphere, they genetically altered the five most advanced species they found in the valley--the ape, the horse, the tiger, the wolf and the eagle--so they could transfer their alien minds into them. This was how the ape developed the intelligence that marks humankind! Some intelligent apes left the valley to colonize the world and become its master, but for some reason the other four intelligent species never left the valley.

(Hamilton's body of work includes numerous stories with bizarre explanations for how humankind arose--check out "The Accursed Galaxy" and "Devolution" from the 1930s, for example.)

Nelson manipulates events so that Shan Kar hears the recording, and he switches sides and, as he dies from bullet wounds, helps finish off the mercenaries and orders his followers to abandon their sinful rebellion.  Nelson of course stays in the valley to live with Nsharra, who is now ruler of L'Lan, her father also having died on the fighting. Not only does Nelson have the hots for Nsharra, but he couldn't stand to live in the outside world, where people treat horses like slaves!  (This is pretty bogus, in my opinion--the deer and rabbits and mice in the valley don't have intelligence, so the intelligent tigers, wolves and eagles devour them with a clean conscience--why shouldn't the intelligent humans outside the valley exploit the unintelligent horses out there with similar insouciance?)

The Valley of Creation is a below average performance from our man Hamilton. Firstly, the characters and setting are just plain boring.  Secondly, building an entire story around talking horses and wolves, even if all the talking is via telepathy, feels too childish and goofy to me for a serious adventure story, which this is meant to be (there are no jokes and there is tons of blood and death.)  Thirdly, the novel feels kind of cobbled together, with too many loose ends, some of which I have already pointed out--The Valley of Creation's moving parts just don't move together smoothly enough.

Another problem is that it is way too obvious that Nelson is going to switch sides and help out the Brotherhood.  The fact that Hamilton chooses some of the most beloved and romanticized animals possible--horsies, eagles, tigers and wolves--is an obvious sign who the real good guys are--why not challenge yourself, Ed, and try to make us side with rats, spiders and cockroaches?  Shan Kar tortures an eagle on page 25 of the 159-page book, making him pretty unsympathetic from the get go, and his urge to rebel against the egalitarian status quo of thousands of years makes no sense, so Nelson has no philosophical reason to stick by him.

Shan Kar's lack of any motivation for his rebellion is a good example of how weak the characters in this book are.  The animals haven't started causing trouble all of a sudden, so his rebellion has no rational practical basis, and the fact that Shan Kar changes his tune when he hears the recording that proves humans and animals are equal indicates that he has no personal emotional reason to rebel, no lust to be dictator of the valley or get revenge on the horses because stepping in a pile of manure ruined his first date or something.

It is also too obvious that Nelson is going to end up with Nsharra, as she is the only woman in the book--who else could Nelson end up with?

If we compare Valley of Creation to some of the other Hamilton/Brackett novels in which guys go to other worlds and get involved in their disputes that we've read recently, Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla and City at World's End and Brackett's Sword of Rhiannon, the deficiencies of Valley of Creation are thrown into sharp relief.  The characters in those other books, in particular the villains and the people who switch sides, are all more interesting, more believable, and more nuanced.  Shan Kar's rebellion makes little sense, but it is easy to see where Loki (in Valhalla), the Sarks and Rhiannon (in Sword), and the galactic government (in City) are coming from, and the changes of heart of Ywain the Sark, Rhiannon the Martian god and Varn Allen of the galactic government, are more surprising and satisfying as drama than are Nelson's and Shan Kar's.  In Sword there are two beautiful princesses (a pyschic Sea Kings princess as well as war-like Ywain) whom the reader might suspect the hero will end up with, and in City at World's End the main character has to choose between his nice (if boring) fiance and gorgeous space babe Varn Allen.

(City at World's End also pushes Hamilton's anti-tyranny and anti-racism themes in a far more sophisticated and compelling way than does Valley of Creation.)

I don't want to say Valley of Creation is bad-- the story comes to life for those chapters in which Nelson is in the body of the wolf--but it is certainly disappointing.  I guess we'll call this one barely acceptable, and tell you to read all the other Hamilton books you see before this one!

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Sword of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

"In yourself you are alien and strange and for that alone I would fear you because I do not understand.  But for that alone I would not wish you dead.  But I say that Rhiannon watches through your eyes and speaks with your tongue, that in your hands are his sword and scepter.  And therefore I ask your death." 
It's a Dhuvian!
When I announced to the world via twitter (your source for all important news!) that I had acquired a water-damaged copy of the 1975 Ace paperback edition of Leigh Brackett's 1949 novel The Sword of Rhiannon (original title The Sea-Kings of Mars), members of the classic science fiction community were quick to tell me how much they loved the book.  Fred Kiesche even commented on the terrific cover, which uses that font I love and matches my Ace copies of Alpha Centauri or Die! and The Coming of the Terrans.

Besides the fine cover, the creator of which isfdb does not know, this edition has a brief intro by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton, in which he reminds us that Brackett was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, mentored by Henry Kuttner, worked with Bogey, and was obsessed with Celtic myth.

Enough preliminaries, let's get our asses to Mars and experience this "Incomparable Science-Fiction Classic!"  If you don't have a copy, the internet archive can hook you up with the magazine version from Thrilling Wonder's June 1949 issue.  Whoa, this issue's contents page is full of names classic SFfans will recognize, including people whose work has already been scrutinized here at the blog: Raymond F. Jones, John D. MacDonald, Murray Leinster, James Blish, and the aforementioned Henry Kuttner!  Nice!


Matt Carse is an educated Earthman, an archaeologist, who has lived thirty of his thirty-five years on Mars, and so he is accepted not only among college professors but also among the native underclass Martians of the crime-ridden Low Canal towns.  One of the greatest living experts on the million-year-long history of the people of Mars, when a Martian thief shows him the Sword of Rhiannon, the Fallen God of Martian myth, and claims he has found Rhiannon the Cursed One's tomb, Carse is quick to follow him there.  At the tomb the thief shows Carse a throbbing black sphere, something like a black hole, and when Carse is distracted the ne'er-do-well pushes the Earther into it!

When Carse comes out of the sphere he finds himself in the tomb again, but not on the arid dying Mars of his day--oh no, he now strides upon a green vibrant Mars of glittering oceans, dense forests and grassy hills, the Mars of a million years ago!

Carse's Earthly good looks get him in trouble almost immediately.  The local people, whose town is part of the empire of the Sarks, think he looks like a Khond, an enemy race, and he ends up captured and put to work as a galley slave, pulling an oar on the ship of the Sark princess.  The sight of this arrogant warrior maiden, Ywain of the eyes like "smoldering fires" who looks like a "dark flame in a nimbus of sunset light" has a peculiar effect on him:
Carse felt the surge of bitter admiration.  This woman owned him and he hated her and all her race but he could not deny her burning beauty and her strength....It would be good to tame this woman.  It would be good to break her utterly, to tear her pride out by the roots and stamp on it.
Sexy!

Desperate fight in Caer Dhu!
(You'll probably remember that one of the best Brackett stories we've read recently, "Enchantress of Venus," also had a rough sex vibe to it.)

When Ywain sees the sword that was confiscated from Carse when he was taken captive she realizes that he must know the secret location of the Tomb of Rhiannon. Because the Tomb purportedly is full of high tech gadgets, every Martian and his brother has been looking for the tomb for ages, so Ywain tries to torture its location out of our hero.  When that doesn't work she unleashes her Dhuvian buddy on Carse.  The Dhuvians are an ophidian race who themselves have access to high technology.  In fact, the reason Rhiannon was cursed so long ago was because he shared some of the super science of his people, the Quiru, with these evil snake bastards, and the reason the Sark are currently the dominant race on Mars is because Dhuvians lend them a hand with their weapons technology from time to time.  (While it's not at as rich and deep as Burroughs' Barsoom, Brackett, in the small space of this single 140-page novel, does a good job of creating an exciting Mars full of different human and nonhuman races and political units, each of them with its own special powers, sinister or tragic personality, and relationship with each of the other polities.)

Carse undergoing psychic examination
in the grotto of the Sea Kings
Carse is able to resist the Dhuvian snakeman's hypnosis device and then leads a mutiny of the galley slaves, taking over the ship and felling and then binding haughty Ywain.  The liberated vessel sails to Khondor, home of the Khonds and the Sea Kings, the last hold outs against the Sarks and Dhuvians.  Psykers there make obvious to everyone what has been hinted at numerous times already (and baldly spoiled on the back cover of my edition)--when he passed through that black sphere and between time periods the Earthborn archaeologist's brain was invaded by the soul of Rhiannon the Cursed One himself!  (Regular readers of MPorcius Fiction Log know I love it when different psyches inhabit the same brain, like in Robert Silverberg's 1971 The Second Trip and Ian Wallace's wild and crazy Croyd (1967) and A. E. van Vogt's 1943 Book of Ptath.)  In fear of the evil god who gave the nigh invincible Dhuvians their power, Carse is imprisoned and awaits a sentence of death while the voice of Rhiannon tries to convince him to surrender control of his body!

 A hapless Khond abases himself before
whom he thinks to be the evil god
Rhiannon--Ywain isn't quite so easily convinced
Playacting that Rhiannon has taken over his body so that everybody, in awe, will do whatever he says, Carse commandeers Ywain's galley, escaping Knondor and bringing Ywain aloing with him. They go straight to Sark, and then to the nearby city of the snake men, Caer Dhu.  Is Carse's ruse working on all these Sark and Dhuvian creeps, or are they just leading him into a trap?

In the crisis, Rhiannon, repenting of his ancient sin, really does take over Carse's body and uses the super weapons to exterminate every last Dhuvian.  Ywain's family is deposed, Sark is reduced to its original borders, and Carse/Rhiannon forces a peace onto the Martians.  Then, guided by Rhiannon, Carse and his new girlfriend Ywain travel to the future, back to Carse's time, while Rhiannon joins his brothers, the Quiru, who have forgiven him, in some other dimension.

"Sea-Kings of Mars" / Sword of Rhiannon has been printed again and again, in many countries and languages.  In fact, I own two copies myself, this now broken-spined Ace edition and a version with British punctuation in my copy of Gollancz's 2005 Fantasy Masterworks collection Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories.  Both of these editions are full of irritating typos, but they are different typos:




Typos aside, this is a very good adventure story.  Sure, we've seen all this stuff before from a host of people ranging from van Vogt (whose Ptath also features a god in a time traveler's brain) to Michael Moorcock (perhaps Brackett's most famous and outspoken fan, whose heroes are always bouncing between dimensions and getting involved in sword-swinging wars in which ancient super weapons and people switching sides play a part) but Brackett's writing is sharp, clear and vivid (whereas van Vogt is deliberately obtuse), her characters seem to bubble, on the brink of exploding, with raw animal emotion (whereas in my memory Moorcock's characters seem cold and detached, stark and inert mythic archetypes instead of passionate, flesh and blood people like Brackett's), and the plot here is compact and smooth, with diverse settings, a variety of types of scenes and a real velocity, and no unnecessary digressions or cumbersome subplots.  The Sword of Rhiannon is one of many sword and planet / planetary romance novels, but it is an above average specimen and has a unique and compelling feel; I recommend it to all the John Carter-, Conan-, and Elric-loving kids out there, as well as anyone interested in old-fashioned adventure-style SF.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Four more 1970s stories by Barry Malzberg


It's time to explore the Dream Quarter (or Dream Quarters, you know, whatever) with our Virgil, Barry Malzberg (or Malzverg--you know who I mean!)

"State of the Art" (1974)

The fourth story in the 1976 collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter is "State of the Art," which originally appeared in New Dimensions IV and would later be included in the 2013 collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  In the Afterward, Malzberg tells us this exercise is a deliberate pastiche of Robert Silverberg's famous "Good News From the Vatican."

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the narrator, or simulacra or representations thereof, regularly meet at 1:00 at a Paris sidewalk cafe in the future or a simulation thereof.  Hemingway gets run over by a street car, Shakespeare is poisoned by a vengeful waiter (or maybe just gets sick) and dies, and then the authorities cart the writers all off to prison.

"State of the Art" strikes me as show-offy and self-indulgent and ultimately sterile. Maybe we are supposed to hunt the text for quotes from the luminaries who inhabit the story (Pound's only line is "like petals on a wet. black bough"), but in the Afterword Malzberg assures us the story is serious and not a frivolous light piece, so I guess it is supposed to be a warning that technology is bad for culture and a lament that society does not appreciate writers. Unconvincing and boring.  Have to give a thumbs down to this thing, which reminded me a little of a horrible off-off Broadway play I once endured in which Mae West and Billy the Kid (in the afterlife, mind you) debated the meaning of existence.

"Isaiah" (1973)

In the first installment of our look at Down Here in the Dream Quarter we learned that Malzberg was angry about the way that editors Jack Dann and George Zebrowski had rejected "A Galaxy Called Rome."  Well, in the Afterword to "Isaiah," we learn of another instance in which Jack Dann (allegedly) screwed over Barry!  As Barry tells it, Dann commissioned a 2,000 word piece from our hero for Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, he delivered "Isaiah,"and Dann rejected it, complaining that he wished it was longer!  In 1981 Dann made it up to Malzberg by including "Isaiah," eight years after it had been printed in Fantastic, in the sequel to Wandering Stars, More Wandering Stars, along with a second Malzberg story.

Top Billing!  Take that, Jack Dann!
Reading "Isaiah," I got a strong sense of deja vu--had I read this before? After all, I do own a copy of that issue of Fantastic with the sexy comic book witch (hubba hubba) on it.  But, no, what "Isaiah" reminded me of was "Bearing Witness."  Both stories include detailed descriptions of religious authorities smoking cigarettes, both stories mention "the Great Snake," and in both stories a guy goes to visit clergymen to ask them questions about their faith, only to find them distracted by more secular, political matters.  In "Bearing Witness" the narrator goes to a Catholic Church and talks to the chain-smoking Monsignor about the Apocalypse, then, after being sent away brusquely, he has the hallucination that he is the Second Coming of Christ.  In "Isaiah" the narrator goes to visit various people learned in Jewish religious traditions (first a Chasid, then a student rabbi at a Reform congregation in Teaneck, and finally a secularized and alienated Jew at what Malzberg calls "the Ethical Culture Society"), and after they have dismissed his questions about the Messiah out of hand, he returns to report to a man on a throne, I guess God himself, to report his findings.  God (?) climbs off his throne, stubs out his cigarette, and ventures forth.

I laughed out loud when I realized how Malzberg had reworked this material to produce another salable story.  Oh, Barry, you scamp, what are we going to do with you?  (Don't worry, we still love you--we still love The Kinks even though "All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me" are almost the same song, after all.)

I actually think this story is a little more interesting than "Bearing Witness," being longer, more audacious, having more characters and being about real specific places like Teaneck, New Jersey and The New York Society for Ethical Culture. whose massive building on Eighth Avenue I used to walk past regularly, back in my late and lamented New York days, when I would spend hour after hour in Central Park looking at girls and birds instead of hour after hour behind the wheel of a car looking at the trash and wrecked vehicles on the side of Route 71 (or as people here insist on calling it, "I-71.")  It looks like I graded "Bearing Witness" "acceptable," but "Isaiah" earns a "marginally good" score.

Afterword to "On the Campaign Trail"

We read "On the Campaign Trail" when we immersed ourselves in futuristic evil, evilometer in hand, by reading Future Corruption, a volume compiled by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood.  In the Afterword to the story here Malzberg claims that "On the Campaign Trail" was prophetic and moans that his prophecy was unrecognized: "The writer in America functions in obscurity; how much more obscure the domain and audience of the science fiction writer, who, the more serious he becomes, the more resistant he finds the audience."  I wonder if Malzberg is singing the same tune now that every "with it" person is expected to know who is having sex with who in the latest episode of the zombie show and the dragon show and in the killer clown movie.

Malzberg likes to pose puzzles, and he gives us one in the second para of this Afterword: "...the only two worthwhile national figures in American political life in my time have, I feel, totally betrayed me and all of us."  Who can he mean?  Get out the Venn diagrams!
It's not hard to come up with two national level politicians who were left-wing college professor types (the kind of pols I'm guessing a person like Malzberg might identify with), guys like George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, but does Malzberg have a reason to feel betrayed by McGovern and Humphrey?  It seems impossible that Malzberg could have ever admired vulgar and brutish Texan LBJ, and as for America's photogenic royal family, the Kennedys, I don't know why Malzberg would feel betrayed by Robert, doubt Malzberg cares about Chappaquiddick, and I don't think many Democrats hold their matinee idol JFK responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the Vietnam War.  A mystery!

"Report to Headquarters" (1975)

Like "State of the Art," this one first appeared in one of Silverberg's New Dimensions anthologies and then was included in 2013's The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.

"Report to Headquarters" is in the form of a glossary of terms used by the X'Thi, natives of a gaseous alien planet, sent by explorer Leonard Coul from that planet, upon which he is stuck because of a crash and perhaps an attack from the panicked (but now friendly) X'Thi.  Through the glossary entries Coul describes the native's cosmology and metaphysics, engages in a little self-aggrandizement, and begs for help.  Time is running out, soon the X'Thi's major religious festival (a sort of sex orgy followed by a mass pilgrimage) will take place and then they won't be able to help Coul.  How they are helping Coul now is not clear--Coul has to stay in the disabled ship because he can't breathe planet's atmosphere, and he communicates with the natives, whom he can barely see in the swirling gasses, which they in fact resemble, via viewscreens.  We readers have to assume there is a chance there are no X'Thi and Coul is another of Malzberg's many insane astronauts.

Not a bad story--I laughed at one of the jokes, and a digressive glossary is a good idea for an experimental literary story.  In his Afterword, Malzberg tells us "Report to Headquarters" is a sort of pastiche or homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, which he says he "reveres."  I haven't read Pale Fire myself, though I am a Nabokov fan; maybe this is a signal it is time to tackle it?  Malzberg tells us he thinks nobody has ever discerned the point of "Report to Headquarters," and I would not venture to claim I grokked it, either.

Afterword to "Streaking"

The next story in Down in the Dream Quarter is "Streaking," which I read in 2015 in the aforementioned Future Corruption and didn't really get.  This afterword isn't helping me much.  Malzberg explains what streaking is (mansplains?) because, he says, today's technology causes fads to arise and be forgotten very quickly, and we readers probably don't recall the phenomenon.  He makes some weak jokes about Watergate (Nixon should have streaked, he says) and that's it.  I don't usually grade the ancillary material, but I think I'm giving a thumbs down to this Afterword.

"Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" (1974)

This story made its debut in Nova 4, and then in the 1990s Ursula K. LeGuin included it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990, a book of SF inflicted upon college students. As Thomas Disch relates in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, LeGuin employed a number of editorial strategies to create in The Norton Book of Science Fiction a volume that would promote and cement in the minds of college students a vision of science fiction as a body of work with a feminist and leftist character.  One such strategy was to cherry pick stories by men which reflected LeGuin's own agendas, even if they were neither very representative of the author's work as a whole or examples of his better work.  Disch relates how LeGuin wanted a story of his which Disch was not very proud of, and would accept no substitute, and he also dismisses the Malzberg story we talk about today as weak, not "mordant and funny" like better specimens of Barry's oeuvre.  Let's see if "Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" delivers the pinko goods.  

Our narrator and a young woman, Betsy, inhabitants of the year 2115, on Bastille Day, visit a recreation of a 1974 American town built as a tourist attraction on Mars.  Our narrator moans that Mars has become a tourist trap!  He also lets us know that Venus is suffering terrible unemployment!

The fake 20th-century town is like a carnival, with barkers enticing people into tents. (Dare I point out the contrast between Ray Bradbury, optimistic Christian from a small Middle Western town, who loved loved loved carnivals, and Malzberg, urban Jewish pessimist, who seems to think carnivals are disgusting?)  Betsy and the narrator visit an attraction billed as "the iconoclast."  Inside the tent a person (human or robot? the narrator wonders), representing a contrarian of 1974, argues that the space program must be abandoned, explaining that it wastes money that should be spent on "our cities" and "the underprivileged" and distracts people from their real problems on Earth and in their own souls.  "We won't be ready for space until we've cleaned up our own planet, understood our own problem."

Betsy and the narrator argue with the iconoclast, and then, on the hallucinatory final page of the four-page story, the narrator and the iconoclast describe radically divergent histories of the post 1970s space program, the iconoclast one in which Man never colonized space because of 1980s civil unrest and the narrator the one in which the story is (apparently) set, in which Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter were colonized in the late 20th and the 21st centuries.  Then the narrator is hypnotized or has his consciousness sucked out of his body and placed in the iconoclast's shell or something--he comes to believe the iconoclast's pessimistic vision and finds himself in the iconoclast's place, arguing to people that the space program must be abandoned.

While I agree with Disch that this story is earnest instead of funny, says boring goop that lefties say all the time, and does not represent Malzberg at the top of his game, I still think it is a pretty good story, whether or not you share Malzberg's pessimism about the space program (Betsy makes the standard pro-space exploration arguments about as effectively as the iconoclast makes the standard anti- ones.)  In the Afterword, Malzberg tells us writing the story was "profoundly satisfying" because for the first time in print he was "speaking in his own voice."  He compares himself to Harlan Ellison, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Norman Mailer, suggesting he now knows the attractions of writing in the confessional mode and addressing issues and the audience directly.  One wonders if Malzberg is happy that our society (as reflected in political priorities and public discourse, at least) has abandoned the romance of space exploration and instead focuses on diversity matters, redistribution schemes, and environmental issues.  (As for myself, I'm with Betsy--"But don't you think that exploration is an important human need?  We'll never solve our problems on Earth after all so we might as well voyage outward where the solutions might be.")

**********

These stories, and even more so Malzberg's Afterwords, serve as a window onto Malzberg's recurring themes and interests and the 1970s milieu in which he wrote them.  Definitely recommended for the Malzberg aficionado--if there's a Malzberg otaku in your life, keep Down in the Dream Quarter in mind this holiday season!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton

"But the main problem will be morale, Hubble."  He thought of Carol, as he added, "I don't believe these people can take it, if they find out they're the last humans left."
When I recently saw the Fawcett Crest 1974 paperback edition of City at World's End on the shelf at a used bookstore, buying it was what the kids call a "no-brainer."  First of all, it's by MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton. Second, there's the beautiful Paul Lehr cover.  I even like the lowercase aesthetic they are pulling here--this theme is continued on the inside, with the chapter headings printed in a fun lowercase font.  I'm always tickled when it looks like the publisher made an effort to produce a book with some kind of design vision in mind. (The chapter headings in City At World's End seem to be in the same font I enjoyed when it was used by our friends at Belmont for their volume containing Kris Neville's Special Delivery and Dave Van Arnam's Star Gladiator.)

Fawcett really goes the extra mile in selling this book--the first page tries to convince you that City At World's End is a serious examination, even a prediction, of a possible future for the human race!  They go so far as to quote "eminent biologist N. J. Berrill," whom Wikipedia is leading me to believe was like a British version of Jacques Cousteau!  Awesome!

It is the middle of the 20th century, in America's Middle West, where, in Middletown, home to 50,000, Kenniston, a scientist, is walking to his job at an industrial laboratory.  Almost nobody who lives in Middletown knows that the lab is an important component of America's defense establishment!  But somebody knows, and that somebody (the identity of whom Hamilton leaves mysterious, but I'm guessing this somebody has a name like "Josef" or "Zedong") detonates one of those new super-atomic missiles that everybody has been talking about right over Middletown!  But instead of vaporizing the town, the explosion shatters the very fabric of space and time and transports Middletown and all its inhabitants millions of years into the future, to when the sun is weak and red and the land is dry, desolate and cold!

City at World's End is one of those books in which a crisis leaves the common people, at best, at a loss, and more often ready to panic or riot, and, since the leadership they need is not forthcoming from the political class (the mayor of Middletown is short and "pudgy" and at one point described as "a crushed, frightened little man"), real men have to take charge.  Kenniston and his boss Hubble are just such men, as is a local businessman who owns a big trucking company and was some kind of logistics guy during "the last war," which I assume must be World War II.  The eggheads explore the creepy landscape beyond the newly transported town and discover a deserted domed city.  With no source of coal, everybody will freeze to death if they stay in their houses, so the scientists and the trucking magnate organize and lead an exodus out of Middletown and into the domed city--the dome will (they say) help retain heat.  This domed city also has hydroponics tanks the scientists will be able to get running again so nobody will starve, and a shaft leading to the Earth's core, presumably built by the original inhabitants hundreds of thousands of years ago to tap its heat; unfortunately today the core is quite cool.

In hopes that there are people elsewhere on the Earth, Kenniston figures out how to transmit messages with some equipment found in "New Middletown," and eventually some people who have heard the transmissions arrive.  But these people aren't Earthers--they are the descendants of humans who left Earth millennia ago to colonize the galaxy; these people now rule the entire Milky Way from their capital in the Vega system, and they have brought some of their alien friends with them! One of these alien races looks (as you can see on the cover of the issue of Startling Stories in which City at World's End first appeared) like over-sized teddy bears!  And another like humanoid cats!  The human Vegans, representatives of the Governors of the Federation of Stars, study old Middletown and do administrative work while the ursine Capellans and feline Spicans--these furry people are technical adjuncts attached to the mission--help get the atomic power and plumbing and so forth in New Middletown running again.

City At World's End is dated in a way that 21st-century readers may find interesting, amusing or aggravating.  For example, the Earthwomen characters, when they are on-screen (which is not too often), are always going hysterical, weeping, or complaining and just generally getting in the way.  The leader of the Vegan expedition, Varn Allan, is a woman, a slim and cold-hearted blue-eyed blonde (sexy!), who eventually crumbles under the strain and admits she wishes she had been a party girl instead of volunteering for the Federation space navy.  And if the mayor formerly known as Warren Wilhelm Jr. is right, and most people want a mayor and wider government with dictatorial powers, they won't be happy to see the mayor of Middletown portrayed as an ineffectual boob who outsources all leadership duties to scientists and businessmen and the Vegan Federation governors depicted as imperious, contemptuous and callous jerkoffs.  On the other hand, the novel has a hopeful anti-racist message--the adults of Middletown are initially suspicious of, even repulsed by, the non-human aliens, but their children immediately embrace them, and of course in the end they turn out to be very nice and helpful.
The big, furry Capellan sounded like a blood brother to every repair technician on old Earth.
He [Kenniston] discovered one day that he was working beside the humanoids as naturally as though he had always done it.  It no longer seemed strange that Magro, the handsome white-furred Spican, was an electronics expert whose easy unerring work left Kenniston staring.
Under their fur, these freaks from other solar systems are just like us!  (Like getting stuck on a far-future worn-out Earth that has been abandoned by humanityhumans working and fighting side by side with aliens is a recurring theme in Hamilton's work.) In fact, the 20th-century humans have more in common with these furry weirdos than with the humans of the far future, because the furries, as relatively young races, still have a passionate independent streak and a love of their home planets, while the future humans, who have had atomic power and space travel for millions of years, are a bunch of cold and obedient drones who do whatever the government tells them and have no feeling whatsoever for the Earth!

This comes out when it is revealed that the Governors of the Federation of Stars are ordering the Middletowners to move from the dying Earth (a phrase Hamilton uses repeatedly, inevitably reminding one of Jack Vance's famous stories, the first of which were published the same year as the magazine version of City at World's End) to some more economically viable planet for their own good, whether they like it or not.  The people of Middletown resist, but Varn Allan and her conniving male subordinate, who wants her to fail so he can take her job, insist that Federation word is law and the Earthlings must move. In contrast, the furries share the Middletowners' "provincial patriotism" and would like to loosen the hold of the Federation on their own peoples (they themselves have been forcibly evacuated from beloved homeworlds in the past.)  So the Cappellans and Spicans give Kenniston some legal advice--he has the right to go to Vega to argue Earth's case.  What gives the Earth a legal leg to stand on is the fact that a new process has been proposed by which the cool inner core of a dying planet like Earth can be ignited so the planet can flourish again, even with a weak red sun.  So Kenniston rides the ship to Vega with his furry pals and the haughty hotty Varn Allan, on a quest to get permission to have the process tested on the dying Earth's core.  (I know, this now sounds a little like Gene Wolfe's 1980s Book of the New Sun and its fifth volume, The Urth of the New Sun, doesn't it?)

On Vega Four we get one of those Earth-on-trial scenes that we encounter in SF pretty regularly; Robert Heinlein's 1958 Have Space Suit--Will Travel and James Blish's 1961 The Star Dwellers, books I have read, come to mind at once, but I know there are plenty of others--among those I haven't read is a Jack Williamson fix-up called The Trial of Terra which Joachim Boaz wrote about back in 2011.  The rulers of the galaxy decide that the violent and rebellious 20th-century Earth people must be taught to obey, and that the core ignition process is too dangerous anyway, so Kenniston's request is denied.  Luckily, the scientist who developed this planetary core ignition theory has his ship and staff all juiced up and ready to go, because Kenniston convinces him to defy the Federation Governors and take him and his furry friends to Earth and try the process anyway!  Varn Allan tries to stop them but Kenniston just kidnaps her and drags her to Earth, where everything turns out great for everybody, except Allan's scheming lieutenant, I guess.  Even Kenniston's fiance Carol, relieved she can move out of the dome city and back to her old house, is willing to free our hero from their engagement so he can explore the galaxy (and space babe Varn Allan's pants!)    

I like the plot of this one, and Hamilton seems to be putting some extra literary effort into it; compared to much of his other writing, there is more human psychology (how people respond to the story's bizarre events--resorting to prayer or to the booze, threatening to riot or blaming scientific progress, etc) and relationship material (among her many complaints, Carol is angry that Kenniston kept his real job at the lab a secret from her, and fears their future together is doomed because she loves stability and the old comfortable things while he is fascinated by the new), more fancy images and turns of phrase, and more literary devices like personification and metaphor ("...past the playground that looked as forlorn as though it knew the children were going, never to return.")  The stuff about how government is incompetent and callous and full of selfish self-important jerks, the distinction between young passionate societies and old staid ones, and the anti-racist stuff, add additional layers.

A good novel.  City at World's End brought to mind the much longer and apparently (I haven't read either of them) much more ambitious / pretentious novels of Samuel R. Delany (1974's Dhalgren) and Stephen King (2009's Under the Dome) which, I think, have similar premises.  Might those novelists have been familiar with City at World's End and influenced by it?

City at World's End seems tohave been a hit with readers and has been reprinted again and again since its first publication in 1950 in Startling Stories; you can read the original printing complete with 1950 illustrations at the internet archive.  (This is a pretty impressive issue of Startling, with work by Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, Ray Bradbury, Doc Smith, Virgil Finlay and Frank Belknap Long, and letters from Robert Silverberg--who praises Norman Daniels' "The Lady is a Witch"--and Isaac Asimov--who jocularly complains that in a recent issue his name was misspelled and makes a tepid joke about the tame sexual content of van Vogt's "The Shadow Men," an early version of The Universe Maker, a British publication about which I said nice things on Amazon in 2012.)

Friday, September 8, 2017

Three mid-70s stories by Barry N. Malzberg

Via Ebay, I recently acquired the Lake Blackshear Regional Library of Americus, Georgia's withdrawn copy of Barry N. Malzberg's 1976 hardcover collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  On the jacket are quotes from Harlan Ellison ("Barry Malzberg is...a better writer than I am") and Brian Aldiss (who sees Malzberg as "a master of sex and depression") which would be reason enough to crack yet again the severely cracked spine of this harried and tattered volume, even if I hadn't, somehow or other, slowly been evolving into some kind of Malzberg obsessive. Today, four pieces from this collection!

"Introduction: A Short One for the Boys in the Back Room" (1976)

Malzberg starts the six-and-a-half page intro, dated "New Jersey: January 1976," to Down Here in the Dream Quarter by describing how he temporarily left off using 1950s issues of Astounding as bedtime reading and absorbed nine ("or perhaps ten") biographies of literary icons ("Ross and Tom and John and Ernest and James and John again and Sinclair"--he just gives the first names, mystifying you or flattering your erudition, though in the next paragraph there are more clues--for example, the James is apparently not Joyce or Boswell but Thurber,) only to find them depressingly similar tales of unhappiness--lives of rejection, failed marriages, and alcohol abuse.

Barry then moves on to describing the start of his own career as a writer and how he got into science fiction (at the same time telling us that his SF career is over--don't believe him!)  This account is both entertaining and interesting and contains numerous memorable tidbits, e.g., "the single happiest moment" of his life was when he learned he had made his first real SF sale, "We're Coming Through the Window" to Frederick Pohl at Galaxy, and that when he wrote his breakthrough story "Final War" (original title, when he was shopping it to literary magazines and slicks like The Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, Playboy and Esquire, "Shoe a Troop of Horse") he "did not have Vietnam at all in mind."  In our last episode of this here blog we saw that Malzberg identified with A. E. van Vogt as a fellow sui generis writer--in this book Malzberg identifies with J. G. Ballard because both are (he says) symbols of a certain type of writing:
I never expected to be a major science fiction writer let alone the figure I have become.  (Which if not "major" is certainly that in terms of visibility as best symbol of a certain kind of writing in my field in my country just as J. G. Ballard occupies the same role in England.)      
We'll let you decide if both these self-identifications, written within six months of each other, can be reconciled.

A valuable document for all of you (us?) students of the sage of Teaneck!

"A Galaxy Called Rome" (1975)

This famous story, the foundation of Malzberg's novel Galaxies, which I read back in 2011 in a 1998 anthology of classic novels of space travel and was my first exposure to Malzberg's work, begins by invoking seminal SF editor John W. Campbell, Jr, dead four years when "A Galaxy Called Rome" was published.  (Campbell died on July 11, 1971, within a week of your humble blogger's birth.)

The first line of "A Galaxy Called Rome" is "This is not a novelette but a series of notes," and Malzberg explains that the novelette will "lean heavily upon" two posthumously published editorials by Campbell, in which Campbell posits the existence of a "black galaxy," the product of a neutron star's collapse, a thing with such gravitational power that it is invisible and can constrain not only "light itself but space and time." The novelette Malzberg proposes writing would be about a space ship trapped in this black galaxy, named after Rome by Campbell because all roads lead to it (though none lead away.)

In note form, interspersed with draft fragments of important scenes, we get the outline of the story of ship captain and pilot Lena Thomas, who is the sole waking person on a ship that ends up in the black galaxy, and who thus lives for thousands of years, going insane.  Malzberg's "notes" are full of specific criticism of hard SF ("At this point in the story great gobs of physics, astronomical and mathematical data would have to be incorporated") as well as criticism of fiction in general ("It is to be noted that putting this conventional viewpoint in the character of a woman will give another of those necessary levels of irony with which the story must abound if it is to be anything other than a freak show...irony will give it legitimacy.")

"A Galaxy Called Rome" seems, to me, to be about the impossibility of real knowledge, as well as a reflection on the uselessness of science fiction and perhaps literature in general.  No information can leave the black galaxy, a reminder of the inability of one human being to know another, to transmit information, or to truly know anything with confidence.  Lena Thomas talks to the rest of the crew and passengers, all of whom are in suspended animation and cannot hear her--she is talking for herself, for own psychological benefit, and isn't this like the writer, who writes not knowing if his work will even be published, much less if others will read and understand it? Malzberg muses that SF's pretensions makes little sense--what is the point of speculating about what happens on other planets or in different times when what goes on in one's own town, much less the town one over, is just as unknowable?  ("...it occurred to me that Ridgefield Park would forever be as mysterious as the stars...." Why consider the "sound of pulsars" when "the music of the paddock area at Aqueduct racetrack" is just as, or even more, strange and exciting?  Isn't writing or reading about riding in a star ship just as interesting as writing or reading about riding in a New York City subway car?

Image from Amazon.co.uk--Malzberg's career is plagued with typos!

"A Galaxy Called Rome" is characteristic of Malzberg--it's about being a writer, it shows respect for SF at the same time it calls SF's traditional attitudes into question, it suggests that man's problems will go with him to the stars because those problems are spiritual and psychological, it mentions Freud and the Aqueduct and frustrating sex--but it is better than average for Malzberg because it has more clever turns of phrase and more interesting images per page than most of Malzberg's work, and at about 20 pages it is a good length, neither overstaying its welcome and feeling like it is bloated with filler nor coming off like a half-baked trifle dashed off for a check.  I really recommend this one, not just to Malzberg fans (who of course need to read it) but to people curious about Malzberg who haven't tried him yet, or those who have read one or a few other Malzberg stories and been irritated or unimpressed; this is top shelf Malzberg.

In his Afterword Malzberg tells us he wrote the story for an anthology called Faster Than Light and that it was rejected by the editors, whom he does not name (they are George Zebrowski and Jack Dann.)  Malzberg, who usually says sympathetic things about editors and often expresses his gratitude to them (in fact, Down Here in the Dream Quarter is dedicated to a list of eleven editors) tells us that he is still angry about this rejection; I think Malzberg realizes this is some of his best work.  "A Galaxy Called Rome" first appeared, then, in F&SF, and it has been reprinted many many times, often in books with titles that include the word "Best" or "Top" or "Favorite" or "Great."  (Zebrowski and Dann blew it on this one, but I suppose they made amends in 1998--they were editors, along with Pamela Sargent, of that three book anthology that contains Galaxies!)

"Thirty-Seven Northwest" (1976)

This story, if isfdb is to be believed, has only ever appeared in this book, so you are just going to have to go buy a copy, aren't you?

Our narrator, who is also named Thomas, is an explorer walking around on the surface of Jupiter, in a massively heavy suit which allows him to survive and move in the tremendous gravity of that planet.  He does whatever the people back at base tell him to do, setting up cameras, looking this way and that, etc.  This is all pretty well written in hard SF style, interspersed with Malzbergian descriptions of the narrator's fears about the deadly planet and his worries that stem from the fact that he was supposed to be merely one component of a three-member team, and his comrades, for some reason, have not accompanied him.

At the end of the seven-page story the people at base order him to remove his helmet; when he protests that he will die they threaten to leave him on Jupiter forever.  Then we learn the shocking truth: everybody on this mission is a child!  Why or how this happened is not explored.

A decent piece of work.

In his Afterword to this tale Malzberg compares it to Golding's Lord of the Flies.  He also says that "What all post-technological cultures share is the absolute brutality with which they treat their children, all their children.  (I don't think most other cultures were or are any better but it is this one I know well enough to generalize.)"  This is puzzling. First of all, do people normally think of 1976 USA as "post-technological?"  Does Malzberg mean "post-industrial?"  Secondly, it seems obvious that, compared to most other places and times, that post-World War II America, and the West broadly, coddles and pampers kids.  What "absolute brutality" is he talking about?

Malzberg also uses the afterword to promote Kris Neville, whom he considers "underrated," and to list stories of Neville's which he believes "articulate" the alleged brutality of which Malzberg speaks "with visionary skill."  The Neville stories he lists are "Betty-ann," "From the Government Printing Office," and "Overture;" I have read some Neville but none of these.  Joachim Boaz read the fix-up novel of which "Betty-ann" and "Overture" are a part, and wrote about it in 2015--check his thoughts out at the link.

"Sedan Deville" (1974)

Here's something you maybe didn't know about our pal Barry--he loves cars!  Cadillacs, in fact!  I'm always a little surprised to learn that a smart and/or educated person loves cars or sports, but I hear it all the time, so maybe I should stop being surprised by it.

"Sedan Deville," which first saw light of day in F&SF, consists of letters written to a literary agent by Karl Delvecchio, New Jersey auto mechanic!  Delvecchio writes ungrammatically and refers to himself in the third person with regularity, but he is a published writer, having sold stories to a failing SF magazine, Terrific Science Fiction.  I know you are disappointed about this grease monkey's name, but dry your eyes--the editor of Terrific Science Fiction is named Mr. Walter Thomas!

Anyway, the letters reveal that Delvecchio's stories are all about Cadillacs; in fact, he claims that he is simply the messenger of the Cadillacs, who tell him their stories as he works on them.  He is contacting the agent because Terrific has folded and he desires help finding new markets, but the agent's demands for reading fees and criticism of his stories (the agent suggests he show range by writing about some other make of car) anger him.  The letters conclude with Delvecchio's assertion that the energy crisis is a plot to murder the Cadillacs!

I laughed at some of the jokes in this story, so it gets a thumbs up.  Maybe nowadays the story would be pilloried because it could be interpreted as making fun of a choleric working-class ethnic who may be an immigrant.  It would have been safer to name the mechanic "Thomas," Barry, and reserve "Delvecchio" for the kind but doomed editor of Terrific!

In the Afterword Malzberg talks about the Cadillacs he has owned and describes how each died on him in dramatic circumstances.  (Every day brings new reasons to be glad I drive a Toyota.)  He also points out that when some unnamed "commentator" learned he drove a Cadillac this "enraged" individual listed Malzberg "near the top of the Exploiting Class"--a foreshadowing of the feminist attack on Malzberg in 2013?  No matter how leftist you may be, there's always another leftist ready to slide the knife into you for the least infraction of their ever-shifting creed.

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Worthwhile stuff!

When Brian Doherty of Reason magazine reviewed the 2013 Malzberg collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg he noted that it had typos on every page.  Down Here in the Dream Quarter is not nearly as bad as that, but poor Barry was not well-served by the editors at Doubleday back in the '70s.  When he cites the Neville stories, "From the Government Printing Office" is listed as "In the Government Printing Office" and even though the book's title is printed correctly on the title page, the header on every page that has one reads, nonsensically, "DOWN HERE IN THE DREAM QUARTERS." Sad!